Oklahoma! at 67: It's Retirement Time

by Katie JM Baker


As an extremely passionate fan of (almost) all things musical theater, I do have to honor Oklahoma!’s is milestone status-it is perhaps the most influential American musical ever made. And it was, at least, revolutionary for its time. When it opened on Broadway in 1943, Oklahoma! got rave reviews in almost every paper for, as critic Brooke Atkinson wrote, making “the banalities of the old musical stage … intolerable.” And playwright Thomas Hischak wrote “[Oklahoma!] is the first fully integrated musical play and its blending of song, character, plot and even dance would serve as the model for Broadway shows for decades.” And that’s true: Oklahoma!, Rogers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, marked in many ways the beginning of the “book musical.” Okay, that’s nice. Oklahoma!-cutesy as a jackrabbit, sugary-sweet as one of Laurey’s gooseberry tarts, subtle as Ado Annie herself-is so earnest and corny that it necessitates the exclamation mark tacked on to the end of its name and also, now that it is 67, a permanent retirement.

Where to start? Oh right. THE ENTIRE MUSICAL IS ABOUT A LUNCH BASKET AUCTION. Okay, I’m not being completely fair: Oklahoma! does touch upon deeper issues, such as why cowboys and farmers can’t be friends, the difference between girls who can’t say no and girls who can, and the race disparities between-oh, kidding, Oklahoma! is pretty much the whitest play ever. The only “ethnic” character is the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, who is not so much “Persian” as just a person who lacks a Southern accent and occasionally refers to rugs. In Oklahoma!, every hot button issue is resolved with a square dance.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Oklahoma!/don’t remember anything about it other than OHHHHH what a beautiful morning or OKKKKKKKlahoma (and yeah, sorry, songs are about to get stuck in your head), the narrative, when laid out, can be a little shocking.

We’re in Oklahoma Territory, 1906. Cowboy Curly is singing about how beautiful the mornin’ is as he strolls through the equally beautiful Laurey’s yard. Curly and Laurey may be the blandest, most two-dimensional duo in all of musical theater history; think Barbie and Ken, but in gingham. Curly makes some crack about taking Laurey to the lunch basket auction later that night and Laurey taunts him, saying she’d never go with him because he doesn’t have a suitable carriage (Laurey’s somewhat of a stuck up bitch). Curly assures Laurey that she’s incorrect; if Laurey was to accompany him, he’d drive her in a surrey-but not just any surrey-a surrey with fringe on top!

Remember that cringe-inducing scene in When Harry Met Sally, when Billy Crystal runs into his ex-wife while singing “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” on a junky karaoke machine?

There’s a reason why Rob Reiner chose that song: nothing is more humiliating than singing a song from Oklahoma!, in particular this one (although it’s extremely catchy; listen at your own risk). I guess a surrey with the fringe on top is kind of like the 1906 version of Grease Lightning, except instead of envisioning car sex with hot babes Curly rhapsodizes about feeling “a sleepy head near my shoulder/Noddin’, droopin’ close to my shoulder/till it falls kerplop!”

Meanwhile, Laurey and her Aunt, all status- and luxury-greedy, are practically drooling at the thought of silk fringe.

SO. The box social. The Box Social, I shall capitalize it because there is nothing more important than The Box Social in Oklahoma! Creepy (leering, bulky, dumb) farmhand Jud asks Laurey to The Most Important Box Social Of Our Time and she says yes to make Curly jealous. Meanwhile Ado Annie is stuck in a love triangle between the “Persian” and a really, really stupid cowboy. Laurey’s all, “You gotta choose one man,” and Annie’s like, “Hell no, I LOVE kissing!” Laurey doesn’t understand what that feels like, because she is uptight. Of course, free-spirited Annie is consistently portrayed as a ditzy, bumbling idiot, whereas Laurey is a smart, independent woman. Even at twelve, I wanted to slap both of them: Laurey because she just sucks so much in general, and Annie because I had never been kissed and therefore had no sympathy for Annie who just “cain’t say no” to her two lovers. HARD LIFE.

Annie’s dad catches Ali Hakim and Annie in a clinch and forces Ali to marry her. Ali’s pissed because he really just wanted to sleep with Annie and then get the hell out of dodge, but Annie is thrilled because the whole gist of her character is that she’s too stupid to know what’s really going on.

(My friend Eve played Ado Annie in her high school production of Oklahoma! and, like me, found the plot a little lacking. Eve tried to give Annie some “edge” by attributing her promiscuity to poor self-esteem with “a hovering question of childhood sexual abuse.” One day in rehearsal she gave a particularly dark reading and the director barked at her, “This isn’t The Accused!”)

Moving on. What else? Gertie, who has a very obnoxious laugh, flirts with Curly and enrages Laurey. The lamest catfight ever-prompted by the two girls’ comparing baked goods-ensues. On the other side of the farm, Curly tries to convince Jud people would like him more if he was dead and the two of them sing a song called “Pore Jud is Daid” (this part is TRULY bizarre, but also kind of my favorite).

Laurey buys a “magic potion” (really just smelling salts) from Ali the Persian and induces herself into a dream slash FIFTEEN MINUTE BALLET SEQUENCE in which Curly and Jud fight over her (Jud kills Curly, everything becomes clear). The sequence confuses me to no end because isn’t the essential point of a musical to illustrate feelings through song and dance? Therefore, the ballet is like a musical within a musical, and while somewhat revolutionary for its time (Agnes De Mille choreographed), it makes no sense in the context of a play that is more about barrel jumping than pirouettes. Plus, let’s be honest: the only time a dance sequence that long has ever really worked was in the movie Center Stage (v. similar, actually), and even that was pushing it.

Act Two. It’s Box Social time! The farmers and the cowboys brawl over fences and water rights, but Aunt Elin convinces them to be friends with, shockingly, a square dance. Annie’s love triangle is solved in a cute way (she still can’t stop kissing boys, though) and then OMG IT’S TIME TO BID ON LAURIE’S BASKET.

Jud bids. Curly bids. Jud bids. Curly bids. Jud bids two bits more. Etc, etc, until Curly sells all of his possessions (saddle, horse, gun) and wins the basket.

(DUDE. It’s a fucking PICNIC BASKET. If you had saved your money, Curly, you could have taken Laurey to a taffy-pulling party or something the next night and still have Ol’ Blue.)

Jud and Laurey fight, Laurey fires Jud, Laurey runs to Curly, Curly proposes (clearly the next logical step, it’s not like they were barely speaking to each other just twelve hours prior), Laurey and Curly get married, Jud tries to kill Curly with a knife, Jud falls on his own knife. Everyone rejoices, because Jud is dead, Oklahoma is now a state, and Curly and Laurey are off on their honeymoon in-you guessed it!-a surrey with fringe on top.

* * *

In 2002, big gay theater guy Ethan Mordden revisited the show. He wrote: “The parts didn’t just match. They made love to one another. As Rodgers himself put it, ‘The orchestrations sound the way the costumes look.’” This was under the rubric “Six Decades Later, Still the Great American Musical.”

Mordden, whose love for the show is so fervent it almost scares me, views Oklahoma!’s plot in a rather epic light:

While creating an anthem for the land, Rodgers and Hammerstein were also singing of the people who settle on and develop it-all of it. The song is called ‘’Oklahoma,’’ but it really means ‘’Americans’’: their morality and government and spirit, how they learn the arts of compromise and tolerance in order to deserve the liberty that democracy fosters.

For Mordden, the characters “take on the nature of their region, as if pioneering made folks into authoritarians or rebels… one has the feeling that a nationality is being revealed in microcosm, not merely as farmers and cowmen but as personalities.” And poor old Jud is evil incarnate: “Part of this show’s ebullient Americana is the unpleasant truth that evil will keep coming at you until you kill it. One piece of democracy is the harmonizing of discordant agendas. But another piece is the expunging of the wicked.”

I ain’t buying it. Oklahoma! barely scrapes the surface of the themes it attempts to explore. Frontier expansion is more or less summed up as: “Brand new state! Brand new state, gonna treat you great! Gonna give you barley, carrots and pertaters, Pasture fer the cattle, Spinach and termayters!”

And what of the territory’s original residents, hmm?

Mordden’s reading of evil and democracy and liberty has a very specific ring to it-and his thoughts were published in February, 2002, after all.

And as for feminism… Well, Laurey proclaims that “Many a new face will please my eye, many a new love will find me,” about two seconds before clocking Gertie in the face over Curly, and Ado Annie is less of a free-wheelin’ frontier feminist than an easily distracted 5-year-old child stuck in a curvy body. When I think of the true “American Musical,” I don’t think of Oklahoma! but of Gypsy, West Side Story, or even A Chorus Line-musicals that truly and heartbreakingly illustrate the ups and downs of the American Dream.

As much as I make fun of Oklahoma!, I can’t completely despise it since without it there may never have been a Gypsy Rose Lee, Maria, or Diana Morales. But, just as we no longer drive surreys-with or without fringe-it’s time to take Oklahoma! out to pasture.

Man, is it catchy though. I’ll give it that.

Katie Baker (the West Coast Katie Baker, not the East Coast Katie Baker who also publishes here!) was a fervent drama camp attendee from age 7–16, after which she begrudgingly accepted the fact that she has no musical talent.